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September 18, 2014

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IDEA WATCH: The Twitter Edchat--A Global Tool, a Local Focus

IDEA WATCH: The Twitter Edchat--A Global Tool, a Local Focus

Many techie educators rely on Twitter for their own professional development—culling helpful links or attending thematic edchats online that cross the boundaries of states and countries.

But there is a growing movement to bring that Twitter PD opportunity home, within the boundaries of a district.

What does that look like? Recently, based on a model in nearby Manor ISD in Manor, Texas, our district technology director and I decided to start our own in-house Twitter chat for our district’s educators. It seemed to be an excellent opportunity to connect with the technology leaders within our own district as well as district teachers who were avid Twitter users, but who hadn’t tapped into the educational potential of Twitter. If we could grow their capabilities, our local district chat could be a jumping off point for our teachers to join national edchats and connect with colleagues around the country as well.

The In-District Edchat

In our district, this was an informal effort, begun by two of us, as a trial to see if it could be effective. In Manor ISD, innovative teaching strategist Stephanie Cerda shared that its process began with establishing a district hashtag after there had been professional development about social networking. She comments, “We had George Couros come in early on to work with our teachers about developing a growth mindset and the power of sharing our story. We wanted a place to share all the great things that were happening at Manor.” She adds, “The hashtag #ManorISD became the place to do just that.” Manor ISD initially started its edchat specifically as a way to gather input from teachers about professional development needs. The edtech team (@iTeachManor) actually made the decision to get started.

In other districts, establishing an in-district edchat may be more formalized with a curriculum department decision to have professional development credit built in from the beginning. Either way, a few elements are needed to get started. One of our goals in our district was not only to tap into our teachers who were regular Twitter users, but to attract teachers who had set up Twitter accounts at one conference or another but hadn’t really utilized them. So it was important to be invitational and to provide some sort of instructional materials to help newbies get started.

Our method of choice was creating a Smore page with screen shots and instructions, geared directly toward teachers new to Twitter and Twitter edchats (smore.com/h4nn-beginner-s-guide-to-twitter-chats). Another great guide to Twitter chats can be found in the article “Chat It UP,” from the February 2014 issue of Leading and Learning with Technology (learningandleading-digital.com/learning_leading/february_2014#pg12).

Timing and Tempo

Another basic but important consideration for those leading the chat is day of the week and time, as it has to be an evening when the chat leaders are going to be readily available (and a time when teachers would be likely to participate). A decision also has to be made how often to host the chat. In our district, we held one once a week; Manor ISD’s chat was conducted once monthly to avoid burnout. One additional planning consideration is trying not to cross over any major edchats that already take place which in the future your teachers might want to participate in. A global list of many edchats is maintained by @cybraryman and can be found at bit.ly/officialchatlist.

As moderators, take time to meet weekly via email, Google Hangout, etc. in order to plan the questions for the chat. In our district, we quickly utilized Google Docs and Google Chat to plan the topic and questions. Then we could cut and paste each question into the chat at the appropriate moment. Pacing the chat takes a little practice because it can move quickly. It’s probably helpful to use Twitter tools such as Tweetdeck or HootSuite to be able to keep up with the speed of the chat. Also, it is helpful as a moderator to have a couple of extra hosts who are skilled enough and available when you are not so that you have a backup plan when there are schedule conflicts. Also consider having guest hosts occasionally and encouraging local teachers to step up and take the reins.

Share and Share Alike

Typically, Twitter edchats revolve around one topic per chat. The real benefit of doing an in-house Twitter chat is that you can customize the topics to match issues current to your own teachers. Not only can the edchat be a growth opportunity for them, but it is helpful to district leaders to hear teachers’ ideas and concerns in a more informal environment. Sometimes in an online environment, teachers are more willing to speak up about problems or share their classroom successes. Another real benefit is that teachers across campuses can connect with one another. Often, teachers who share similar interests or who are working on similar technology struggles are unaware that there are other teachers in their own district working on the same things. Twitter acts as a local matchmaker service for them. Cerda noticed the same thing in Manor ISD: “So many times you don’t know what is happening at other campuses (or even just the other classrooms). Teachers can now make connections across the district and collaborate with our very own teachers from other schools.”

We quickly discovered another benefit. Educators (and students) from outside the district also started participating in our district chats, since of course they were public. This also provided teachers in our own district with excellent contacts beyond the walls of our area and the potential to build future global educational partnerships.

The Librarian’s Role

How can librarians be involved with an in district chat? With so many librarians active on Twitter, librarians can offer to co-moderate a chat for the district or a particular school. Librarians can develop instructional resources to help teachers get started or invite students in to “teach” the teachers in the library and be active in helping publicize the chats via email, newsletters, your website, etc. And as a librarian, you can contribute to the topics being discussed in the chat, find support materials for teachers afterwards, etc.

After the chat is done, the librarian can curate the chat using a tool such as Storify, which allows you to capture the chat, edit out irrelevant items, and with a simple link, email the script of the chat to teachers. Sharing with Storify throughout the district each time not only allows the participants a chance to remember what they discussed, but shows teachers who hadn’t tried an edchat what they were missing and what it looks like. It also provides a good record for PD purposes of the benefits of running a local chat.

Ongoing publicity is an important element for continually growing the chat and enticing new teachers to attend as well as reminding “regulars” of the upcoming date/time. Cerda comments: “We post a promo on our district site, we fully promote the monthly theme, and drum up excitement. Storify was big in getting people on to Twitter. We storify the chats, and email a screenshot of the first page to the entire district but also include the link.” Cerda notes, “We think that once people get a peek at what is being shared, it motivates [them] to jump onboard next time.”

The PD Piece

The next element is deciding whether or not the chat will count for professional development. What author Michelle Davis pointed out in a 2011 Education Week article still holds true for the majority of districts: “But sites where this professional development takes place, such as Google+, and the online conferences and webinars that offer such PD are often considered unconventional, and some school districts are still struggling to determine how they fit into required credits” (Davis, 10/26/2011). However, views of online PD and Twitter chats are gradually beginning to change.

If the chat was homegrown, like ours, then consider approaching the district curriculum office with examples of programs in other districts and how they handle credit. Have a frank discussion about the benefits of the chat in terms of PD and helping teachers innovate (and the low cost of such an event). Manor ISD has teachers record their participation in their online PD tool, Eduphoria, and they can use the Storify chat to verify attendance.

Often, as we get more networked ourselves as professionals, we are mainly connecting with others across the country, rather than seeking out or growing other networked individuals in our own community. And of course, sometimes we are faced with resistance to change. But hosting a local Twitter edchat is one way to be invitational, and to gradually build excitement and community within our own districts for using Twitter for professional growth. Not every district may begin with a tool such as Twitter for online PD. It may do better with Google Hangouts or in-house webinars. But building that capability within the faculty helps teachers be more proficient with students. As one consultant once remarked, are we even literate in the 21st century if we do not know the language of a tool like Twitter? A local Twitter chat is just one more avenue for doing that. 

Contact Carolyn at technolibrary@gmail.com.

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